Restaurant review

Restaurant Review: Kono Gives Yakitori the Omakase Treatment

One evening last June, I found myself eating chicken skewers on the second-floor patio of a downtown hotel, wondering about the fire code.

I was seated at a counter inside a makeshift hut built of rough wood and partially sheltered by a corrugated iron roof. Skewed pieces of chicken, from everyday cuts like wings and breasts to less common bits like tendons and neck skin, were browning on a pair of table boxes filled with scorching sticks of binchotan charcoal.

When the embers died down, the chef, Atsushi Kono, piled fresh charcoal and beat the air with a hand-held bamboo fan, driving oxygen into the fire. In a minute the flames would leap up to the plywood ceiling. I thought, “What a fantastic idea for a restaurant.” Then, “This can’t last.”

I was both right and wrong. The open-fire, open-air yakitori cooking experience, which was called Chikarashi Isso at 50 Bowery, ended the following month. But Mr. Kono and some business partners have built a new indoor restaurant in a space on the ground floor of the block, in a secluded passage from the Bowery to Elizabeth Street in Chinatown.

He now tends his skewers behind a green marble slab on which he will occasionally place a burning cedar plank, under a shiny brass hood that sucks up stray sparks. This grilling cockpit is surrounded on three sides by a light wood counter that seems to float in a halo of light in the center of a shaded dining room with charcoal walls.

I must admit that in my meals at Kono, I missed the gentle breeze from the pop-up and the view of the Manhattan Bridge. On the other hand, I never cared that the city fire safety inspector I’d close the place before I had a chance to dip my spoon into the Okinawan black sugar creme brulee.

What both iterations have in common is Mr. Kono, the town’s most accomplished yakitori chef and, by extension, one of its greatest chicken cooks. For more than a decade, his craftsmanship was on display at Torishin, most clearly at his second location on West 53rd Street, where his deputies grilled a la carte kebabs in the split-level dining room for that he assembled sensible omakase menus at an eight-seat counter tucked behind a curtain.

These days it has competition from Torien, the two-year-old yakitori bar in NoHo. The chefs there were still fine-tuning their work when I saw him again last year. Mr. Kono figured out a while ago how to get the results he wants night after night.

In Kono, the only meal available is an omakase dinner, for $165. The procedure begins with a flurry of small finger foods: perhaps a dashi-soaked piece of smoked eggplant with sea urchin lobes draped over it, or a pair of chilled cherry tomatoes marinated in white wine.

But the chicken is never far from the stage. A few curls of bronze skin will almost certainly show up early, fried to the consistency of Fritos. There will likely be a cup of straw-colored consommé, tasting roasted bones and green onions.

The monaka course will, in all likelihood, remain in the rotation forever. Two mochi wafers are grilled over the coals then filled with a ridiculously rich chicken liver pate under a shaggy heap of shaved truffle. This is the most ethereal chopped liver sandwich in town.

It’s contact with the other world, after which dinner moves on to the more earthly affairs of muscle, fat, tendons, cartilage and skin. Between eight and 10 skewers make it into this part of the meal, carved from all over the bird.

The exact cuts will be chosen by Mr. Kono, although you have the option of purchasing an additional course or two. Depending on the night, you may be offered a pair of coxcombs, a single chicken leg, harpooned ginkgo nuts, a king crab leg or a slice of Wagyu beef. Ask which one Mr. Kono recommends and you’ll be directed to what my server called “ovary, liver, and fallopian tube.” It is a skewer with a crumpled length of oviduct next to a lobe of liver, with an unlaid egg hanging from the tip, like a bright yellow balloon on a stick. The egg is hot and liquid. The oviduct is slightly chewy, much like the grilled artery Mr. Kono also makes, but softer and richer.

There are at least two distinct pleasures in eating a variety of yakitori at the counter of a chef as skilled as Mr. Kono.

The evidence is sensory: it’s sweet, it’s delicate, it’s crunchy, it’s very crunchy, it’s like a steak but smoother. (That would be the heart.) Along with that is the aesthetic pleasure you get from the work of people with a fine grasp of a craft, whether it’s cinematography, rapping, or glassblowing.

At Kono, thanks to a butchery and smart grills, chicken is not one ingredient but several ingredients. The inner thigh skewers are seared over high heat until the edges are dark brown; dark meat is fatty enough to withstand the heat and stay juicy. The brisket is pulled away from the flame, and its delicate, whispering flavor reminds you why there are so many classic French recipes for Chicken Supreme. As Mr. Kono’s longtime devotees will vividly recall, he further protects this cut by wrapping it in a shiso leaf coated in honey-sweetened savory plum paste, one of the few times he seasons the chicken with anything other than salt and tare.

The accordion folds of neck skin are patiently brought to a golden sheen. The tail is also carefully cooked, but this time the goal is to melt the fat inside. What you eat looks like a miniature chicken kyiv.

All of these effects and others – even some that involve the occasional veggie, like the smoked potato wearing a dollop of osetra caviar on top like a beret – are produced with technology older than gunpowder. The charcoal burns between parallel bars of metal, which support the ends of the skewers; Mr. Kono and a sous chef control the cooking temperature by piling up the coals, then turning the bamboo sticks and moving them to warmer or cooler spots. The heat can be turned up a notch or two by waving a fan.

The last skewer tends to be tsukune, minced chicken and duck with green onions. Mr. Kono makes a remarkable tsukune, charred on the outside but dripping with juice as soon as you open it, like any good sausage. It is accompanied by a sauce, in the form of a raw egg yolk.

At this point, you may feel like you’ve eaten enough poultry for one night. Mr. Kono has other ideas. Recently, he has been taking kebab lessons with half a quail grilled on the bone. Next comes a small cup of cold noodles and, finally, a crème brûlée under a pool of melted black sugar.

A friend whose passion for expensive restaurants sometimes exceeds his budget called me about Kono a while ago. He recently inherited some money and spent it on restaurants he normally couldn’t afford. Kono is a little cheaper than some of the omakase sushi parlors he likes, but he still wasn’t sure the chicken skewers could be worth $165. Couldn’t he just go to downtown Flushing, buy some Xinjiang-style chicken skewers from a cart?

I told him that I liked those carts too, but the two experiences couldn’t be compared. Kono is doing something completely different. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with these street kebabs.”

A few weeks later, my phone started vibrating as it sent me pictures from inside Kono. He was gone after all.

He loved it, of course.

What do the stars mean Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, fine. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, amazing.


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